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Margaret Preston
Australian printmaker
18 December 2004 – 25 April 2005

introduction | essay | selected works


Margaret Preston 'Old Banksia tree' c.1936 woodblock print National Gallery of Australia © Margaret Preston. Licensed by VISCOPY, AustraliaMargaret Preston 'Old Banksia tree' c.1936 woodblock print National Gallery of Australia © Margaret Preston. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia more detail

Over the last 20 years the National Gallery of Australia has assembled an extraordinary collection of etchings, woodcuts, masonite cuts, monotypes and stencils by the Australian artist Margaret Preston (1875–1963). Of all Australian artists, Preston is one of the most widely known, her vibrant  decorative paintings and prints of distinctively Australian subjects (flowers, birds, animals and landscapes) have delighted the Australian public since they were first exhibited in the early 1920s. Over Christmas and the New Year the National Gallery will be presenting the exhibition Margaret Preston, Australian printmaker. It will include a comprehensive display of the artists printed work from 1916–1956, as well as personal items selected from the Gallery's rich Research Archive.

Quick-witted, and a lively writer on art and travel (which she claimed was her hobby) Preston was also an accomplished lecturer and children's educator. She delivered her ideas in short staccato sentences which could illuminate difficult ideas, or, when the speaker was provoked, could cut to the quick. Preston was adroit at the promotion of her work and ideas. In 1927 when Art in Australia devoted a complete edition to her paintings, prints and writings, she not only paid for additional colour illustrations, but also wrote an autobiographical essay with the provocative title From Eggs to Electrolux. For many years this piece formed the basis of our knowledge of the artist's early life. However research by many art historians (which began in the early 1970s), has shown that what Preston wrote, did not always tally with fact. On her marriage certificate, for example, she reduced her age by some eight years, making herself slightly younger than her husband! Her autobiography was in essence an entertaining piece of fiction based on her life.

Margaret Preston 'West Australian banksia' c.1929 woodblock print National Gallery of Australia © Margaret Preston. Licensed by VISCOPY, AustraliaMargaret Preston 'West Australian banksia' c.1929 woodblock print National Gallery of Australia © Margaret Preston. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia more detail

The biographical details that Preston so carefully glossed over have been the subject of ongoing scholarly investigation, and many details of her life have now been recovered and scrutinised The National Gallery of Australia has contributed much to this new research by its acquisition of documents relating to the artist's life. There is now an outstanding archive which contains among other items, the artist's (and her husband's passports), notebooks with writings on colour theory and screenprinting, photo albums documenting their trips to New Zealand, the Pacific and South America in the 1930s, and even a recipe scrapbook from her childhood.

These insights into her life have led to a corresponding reappraisal of the artist's work.  After an extensive stay in England Preston returned to Australia in 1919, she married on the last day of the year, and entered the decade of the 1920s with a new professional name, and place of abode. Her desire to establish a uniquely Australian art was formulated soon after she settled in Sydney. The colourful woodcut views of Sydney harbour, vases of Australian flowers, birds and animals that she produced in the 1920s remain her best known work. The popularity of these consciously decorative works has diminished the attention that has been paid to the prints that she produced over the next twenty-five years.

In the late 1920s Preston rejected colour and her prints became stark and geometric. The 1930s saw her travelling to Japan and South East Asia and there was a corresponding interest in asymmetrical design and close observation of nature. But it was her relocation from Sydney to the small community at Berowra on the Hawkesbury River (1932–39) that changed her art radically. Here she came to understand the fundamental form and spiritual nature of Australia's ancient landscape. She joined the Anthropological Society of New South Wales and studied the art of Aboriginal Australians and immersed herself in the theoretical writings of the great Chinese landscape painters. The landscape became the prime theme for her later mature works. Prestons last major exhibition was held at Macquarie Gallery, Sydney in 1953, where she exhibited 28 stencil prints. The exhibition was opened by the then youthful Bernard Smith (they both were members of SORA, Society of Realist Artists), and the 78 year old artist attended carrying a bouquet of Australian wild flowers in one of her own woven baskets.

Margaret Preston 'Rocks in Roper River Valley N.T.' 1953 colour stencil Collection of the National Gallery of Australia © Margaret Preston. Licensed by VISCOPY, AustraliaMargaret Preston 'Rocks in Roper River Valley N.T.' 1953 colour stencil Collection of the National Gallery of Australia © Margaret Preston. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia more detail

The prints produced for this exhibition are her most profound. In them Preston has imbedded the experience of a lifetime, fusing together her ideas to create a unique vision of the Australian landscape, both physically and spiritually. In preparing a lecture on the nature of the Australian landscape observed:The gay setting sun or the sweet morning mists are all accidents of time … droughts are a misfortune but like the sunrise, only temporary. It is the land itself

Margaret Preston, Australian printmakercan be seen at the National Gallery of Australia Canberr from 18 December 2004 – 10 April 2005. The exhibition will coincide with a revised and expanded edition of The Prints of Margaret Preston: A Catalogue Raisonné which details and illustrates all of the artists printed work.

 

Roger Butler
Senior Curator
Australian Prints and Drawings

 

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Margaret Preston; Australian printmaker is proudly supported by Fyshwick Fresh Foods, Saville Park Suites, SMS Management & Technology